Plenty of Fish—Just One Catch
Updated: Dec 4, 2022
After nine months and 200 profiles, could I ever find a match?
There’s nothing quite like starting a new relationship. The tingle of anticipation, imagining all your hopes and dreams suddenly being realized by one person. It’s ridiculous, it’s impossible, and yet, it’s so easy to fall into that delusion, at least for a few hours or days.
I’m in that delicious delirium. Really excited to have connected with a woman who seems very promising. Charming and good looking for starters, but really smart too, asking incisive questions that I have to think about—and want to answer. Which is a relief—I was ready to give up looking for awhile.
It’s 2009, and I’ve been officially single for about a year, though my previous relationship had been on life support for a year before that. So I’m clear about my status. At 52 years of age, I’m looking for a serious relationship. Serious enough to sign on with Chemistry.com, one of the few services that promises something more than casual acquaintances and hookups.
This gal seems to be looking for the same thing. In fact, she found me first—I don’t understand why she didn’t show up in my feed, but I showed up in hers and that works! She wanted to meet me just because of my profile pic. That was a totally random selfie, but hey—it worked again! Her profile mentions a love of cooking, her healthy family relationships and the new Iron Man movie in the first few paragraphs. Check, check, and check!
So what happened? Things have suddenly stalled. I wrote her a direct message, and haven’t heard back yet. It’s hard not to keep checking my inbox.
I was an early adopter of dating apps—I’d met my last girlfriend on Match.com in 1999. Back then, fewer than 5% of couples met that way, and Debbi was a little embarrassed whenever I revealed how we’d met. But with my interest in science and my history with high tech, it seemed like good solution to a modern problem. How do you meet partners outside of bars, churches and work? Especially when I was a self-employed, tee-totaling agnostic?
Now Dr. Helen Fisher had upgraded the app with a more scientific approach. Starting with an elaborate questionnaire, users were placed into one of four categories, based upon brain chemistry. It maps to other personality tests, like Myers-Briggs, but with catchier labels: Builders, Directors, Explorers, and Negotiators. I love personality tests, and this is a little more clever than most.
Builders are driven by serotonin, and tend to be cautious and respectful. Directors thrive by testosterone, and may be good at sports and other rules-based pursuits. Negotiators benefit from estrogen which makes them pro-social and empathetic. And Explorers are hooked on dopamine, making them creative and easily bored. I came out with a little of everything, but “Explorer” defined me the best.
Armed with this new self knowledge, I set about exploring potential mates on Chemistry. Unlike the free-for-all that you might expect, this app takes a very deliberate approach. Five matches were presented at a time, and I had to say “no” to each and every one before I could move on to the next batch. So I spent a lot of time carefully reading profiles, thinking and then deciding. 200 times as of this writing, to be precise.
I put a lot of trust in the system, but it’s harder to trust the human element. It’s easy to dismiss 80% of the offerings. I didn’t need an algorithm to sniff out neediness, insecurity, or incompatible values. After awhile, I didn’t even bother with the Builders or Directors, because I could see they weren’t a good fit (and the app said they probably wouldn’t be, anyway). For weeks I woke up early to see what surprises were in my inbox. I’d scan the five submissions, looking for a live one and confidently dismissing the rest. Then the real work began.
You can’t just start communicating with an interesting match. Chemistry requires consent (in that way, it was ahead of its time). If I found someone’s profile interesting, I had to say so and wait to see if it was reciprocal. That’s a good thing, because I get excited very easily. I had to wait to see if the other person would take the next step—and send me two questions. If she liked my answers, I could send her two of my own. And only then, the app allowed us to message each other directly.
Which is where we are today. I sent my new match a nice note yesterday afternoon, asking for a phone date. It’s been 24 hours and I haven’t heard a peep. Maybe she sleeps in. I can get stupidly worked up by new prospects. Intoxicated, really. It’s the dopamine addiction, I’m sure. The sense of achievement, the novelty, is thrilling. It’s so easy to think of the object of my attraction as a prize to be won, and to forget they are another person. But this time, she pursued me. This time, I’m the prize.
I have to stay focused. This is a perilous point in online dating. Many relationships fail during the epistolatory challenge. Not everyone is good at written communication—and there’s a lot of room for interpretation. There’s no telling if your words will make sense to someone you’ve barely met.
I remember a protracted conversation with someone I’ll call The Correspondent, an intriguing woman who kept dodging any and all attempts to set up a meeting. She just kept stringing me along with short, teasing notes. She was flirtatious, inquisitive—and completely opaque. Was she being deliberately coy? Did she think this was cute? Or maybe she just couldn’t close the deal? I gave up trying to figure her out.
Sometimes things would progress to a phone call or better still, a date. I can’t forget The Temptress, a very self-possessed female from Hawaii who told me right up front that she was the object of many men’s fantasies. She talked a lot about how irresistible she was, sending me pictures of herself in scanty island wear, suggesting that I should very much like to meet her. Okay, so we met for lunch. She was attractive enough physically, but as the conversation wore on, my cheeks grew sore from all the forced smiling. I was grateful to pay the check and say goodbye. She called me the next day and demanded to know why I didn’t make a second date. I told her I wasn’t as confident as she was.
I had a similar problem with The Executrix, a rather driven business woman who talked a lot about her need for sex and physical touch over coffee but who walked it all back during a stroll through the neighborhood. I tested that desire for closeness by holding her hand for a few blocks—only to feel her tug and pull my arm like it was an unwelcome leash. It was confusing and disappointing—I wanted to scratch that itch, but she acted like I had fleas. Don’t women understand how testosterone works? If you bait the hook, men are gonna bite.
Things went much better with The Fashionista, a sharp, stylish woman of color from New York who was suffering culture shock in California. I like to think of our brief, intense relationship like finishing school for both of us, where she taught me not to “dress up” but to “dress well,” and how to handle a black woman’s hair (that is to say: don’t!). I showed her around the local scene and introduced her to the concept of a sensitive West-coast man. At first, she called me “Alan Alda” behind my back, but then slowly poured her pheromones like gasoline onto my smoldering desire. We had a good thing for a month or two, until my wish for greater intimacy doused that fire. Back to the mating board for one more try.
It’s easy to list of all the bad dating experiences and feel like a victim. But I don’t see it that way. I was not the only person suffering through this process. I know that I must have said the wrong thing, the wrong way, at the wrong time—more than once. It’s really hard to have perspective in the moment. When you’re gasping for love, it’s hard to drink it in slowly and meaningfully.
My last meetup was not my finest hour. I met The Librarian near the end of my stint, a companionable woman who like sci-fi and Star Trek, and who was nice enough to help me paint my new condo. She even brought a gift of bread, salt and wine to bless the house. I remember sitting on the couch, feeling her edge closer during a long talk. She wanted more, was inviting more, but I didn’t feel the same. Worse, I didn’t have the guts to say so. It was nice to have her company. I didn’t want to give that up just yet. We parted awkwardly, and made a date for the next weekend. After another chaste rendezvous, she confronted me on the phone. “What’s going on between us?” she asked. I had to admit that I didn’t feel the same level of attraction. She was angry and disappointed. “When were you going to tell me?” she asked. After the next time, maybe?
There was no next time. I felt bad, and strangely bereft.
My subscription to Chemistry.com was running out, and after nine months I was tired of looking. I decided to let it lapse, and of course, that’s when my final match contacted me, ten days before I signed off. If her timing was different, we would never have connected. Instead, we completed all the preliminaries in record time, and everything looked pretty great—online, anyway. But here it is Sunday night, and I haven’t heard from her all weekend. I can honestly say that I haven’t had a better interaction with anyone in this process. Her notes were clear, direct, and fun. So why did she stop writing? Was it something I said? Surely, the app couldn’t have failed me. It must be a human error!
I finally got a response the next morning. There, in my inbox, was a simple note. “Thanks for writing back! I’d love to chat. How about tonight after 7? — Paulina”
No explanation, no apologies, like nothing happened! Eventually I learned that the problem was all mine—this woman simply shuts off her computer at 5 on Friday afternoons and goes on with the rest of her life, only to log in again for work on Monday mornings. Obviously, she has a very different relationship with her computer (and the app!) than I do.
So be it. I’m very happy to report, after 13 years together, we are in sync most every other way. I can live with that.
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